Being all things to all people
L.A. Times-Washington Post News Service
You’ve heard the grumbling about other presidential candidates. Is Barack Obama black enough? Is Rudy Giuliani white enough?
Now, the much-ridiculed recording of Hillary Clinton affecting a painfully unconvincing Southern drawl while speaking to a black Baptist congregation raises a new question: Is the senator from New York too white to be elected president?
That may sound like a silly question in a country where nearly eight in 10 voters are considered white. But over the last few decades, the electorate has come to expect presidential contenders to be more culturally fluid. No longer are we content to look up to a patrician figure from, say, upstate New York and bask in his noblesse oblige.
It’s not that we no longer want our presidents to have some degree of old-school pedigree. We do. But nowadays, they’re expected to be that and much more. In the old days, a culturally one-dimensional presidential nominee could pick a running mate to round out his regional appeal. Today, we expect candidates to exhibit diversity within their own backgrounds.
Just look at our two baby boomer presidents. George W. Bush is a remarkable embodiment of the Republican coalition, with his Northeastern Yankee heritage and his easy Texas drawl. Bill Clinton, of course, combined a humble Southern Baptist upbringing with a Georgetown, Yale and Oxford education. So confident was he of his multilateral appeal that he shocked us by selecting, in Al Gore, a running mate with essentially the same cultural reach.
These two also were the first presidents to try to prove their cultural affinity to non-Anglos. Sure, other white politicians have tried to show their concern for blacks and Mexican Americans, the nation’s two largest minorities. But Clinton’s unprecedented affinity with blacks earned him the title of the first black president of the United States. In the 2000 campaign, Bush went further than any previous candidate to showcase his affinity with Mexican culture, including the Spanish language.
Several of the leading contenders in the 2008 campaign already are trying to showcase their multifaceted backgrounds. Obama, of course, is running as the black-white-immigrant candidate; Hillary as the female-warrior candidate. And in an apparent attempt to triangulate his Massachusetts and Utah backgrounds, Mitt Romney launched his campaign from Michigan, where his late father was governor. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson is the half-Anglo, half-Hispanic candidate.
During the 2000 campaign, analysts were fond of saying that Americans like to vote for someone they could imagine having a beer with. I think we want to cast ballots for people who we think are just like us, or who at least do a reasonable job pretending that they are.
It’s not as though we have a great collective trust in politicians. We implicitly accept the fact that they say things they don’t mean, tell us they’re something they’re not and sell themselves for money. What we cannot tolerate, however, is an inability to cover up the crass mechanics of it all.
In that same way, we want our presidential contenders to cross cultural lines as smoothly as they can, even when they’re faking it. Who can forget the time John Kerry asked for Swiss on his Philly cheesesteak? Or the silly duck-hunting photo op and the “Lambert Field” incident? As a native of Illinois and a successful lawyer in Arkansas, it was no mean feat for Hillary Clinton to become a U.S. senator from New York. But if her Southern drawl fiasco is any indication, she still may suffer from a Kerryesque cultural flat-footedness.
Of all my friends and colleagues, Charlie, who was born and raised in Minnesota, was the most offended by Hillary’s Southern discomfort. “My God,” he said, “how long did she live in Arkansas? And she couldn’t learn to fake a lousy Southern accent? Pathetic.”
Gregory Rodriguez is a regular columnist for The Los Angeles Times.